Lessons from the Smithsonian: Misusing Nonprofit Advisory Committees

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Our story about the Smithsonian’s hiring of a new director at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) involved what might be an all-too-common practice in the sector. The Smithsonian hired a director without asking the museum’s advisory committee for its opinion on the candidates. In fact, the museum’s “board of trustees” was never informed of the selection of the candidate, and most board members found out about the choice only by reading about it in the press.

It was a horrible process—impolite, impolitic—and the acting secretary of the Smithsonian, Cristián Samper, sent NMAI’s board an email acknowledging that he should have informed members about the candidate, a former federal official whom a federal court judge held in contempt for his conduct as the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But it was too late; the hiring had been done. A board that was supposed to provide administrative oversight had been excluded from offering comment on the man selected to be in charge of it.

No doubt many of us are just like the Smithsonian: establishing, and subsequently ignoring, the advisory boards we create and then using them as props for “show” or, as Elouise Cobell described the Smithsonian’s treatment of the museum trustees, like “wooden Indians.”

When they examine matters of accountability, the IRS and local attorneys general aren’t inquiring about nonprofits’ management of advisory committees. There’s no law governing nonprofit for advisory committees per se, but the Federal Advisory Committee Act—Public Law 92-463, which governs federal agencies’ relationship with the approximately 950 federal advisory committees made up of 62,500 members—may offer some guidance. According to General Accounting Office (GAO) reports,[1] 131 of the 950 committees with 41,000 members were grant-review committees, and 208 with 7,900 members were scientific and technical advisory groups.

According to a Congressional Research Service report, among the reasons for the Federal Advisory Committee Act was to ensure that these advisory groups represented the public interest and that meetings were transparent to the public and designed to convey the expert viewpoints that their members are convened to deliver. The Smithsonian failed to meet this bar, and no doubt many public-sector and nonprofit organizations don’t live up to the underlying reasons for creating advisory committees.

As the Smithsonian studiously ignored the NMAI’s board of trustees, Samper promised that the new Smithsonian would clean up its act in the wake of Lawrence Small’s troubled tenure by more actively consulting with the Smithsonian’s own advisory committees, which total more than two dozen. He and his predecessors might have simply read the statutes creating these committees, examined the standards and purposes of the Federal Advisory Committees Act, and used some common sense and courtesy in dealing with the NMAI board—and in soliciting its advice. Maybe the NMAI incident will serve as a reminder that nonprofits need to call on advisory committees for the serious advice that these advisory groups are constituted to share.

End Notes

1. U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), “Additional Guidance Could Help Agencies Ensure Independence and Balance,” April 2004 [PDF]; GAO, “Views of Committee Members and Agencies on Federal Advisory Committee Issues,” July 1998 [PDF].